By Pat Ford
The tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada lies about 500 miles northwest of Winnipeg and you can only get there by plane or a 2 day train ride. It has 800 residents and there are literally no roads going in or out, but it lies at a spot where polar bears congregate to wait for the ice to form on Hudson Bay so they can travel out onto the frozen sea to hunt for seals. The number of bears in and around Churchill can range from a few to dozens and it’s not unusual to see them walking right thru town. The people of Churchill take their bears very seriously. Polar bears feed on meat and any mammal they find on the tundra or ice is a potential meal…including people. There is a ‘bear patrol’ that roams the town streets everyday and at 10pm there is an air raid siren that blasts out a warning that the patrol is over and people should not walk the streets. This is not just propaganda…residents have been attacked in town by bears. These critters are not to be taken lightly.
In October I joined Eli Martinez of SDMdiving.com and photographer Chris Doherty for a 5 day trip to Churchill to photograph these apex predators. I flew to Winnepeg, overnighted there and then flew to Churchill early the next morning. Upon arrival we were met by Ken Shields of NorthStar Tours and after dumping our bags at the B&B, we were off to search for bears. The bear tour was like a safari in Africa…Guides drove photographers around back roads until someone found a bear and notified the others of its location via radio. The summer this year had lingered longer than usual this year so the bear migration was late and there were very few bears around.
When we arrived there was very little snow on the ground but the next day the snow flurries started. Byday three we were in a full blown blizzard with 40k winds and temperatures in the teens. Personally I hadn’t seen snow in over 50 years and I’d really gotten used to Florida temperatures. Fortunately my friend, Tony Weaver from Alaska hooked me up with the proper sub-zero clothing so I was very comfortable walking thru snow drifts. Photography wise I used my Canon R5 with the 100-500 lens and added a 1.4 extender at times. Sometimes the bears were 400 yards away and other times they were looking in our truck windows. Over our 4.5 days we found bears, wolves, 3 types of foxes, artic rabbits and several species of birds. It was an amazing adventure in spite of the snow, wind and freezing temperatures. I’m heading back next year in November…check out sdmdiving.com for details and be sure to dress warm!